Against the backdrop of Saxony’s hills and valleys, her film Nine ∞ introduces us to the Band of Broken Arrows, a club of redfaced ‘German Indianer’ whose hobby is to step into the shoes and habitat of Indigenous cultures. In another view part the gallery, large organic urns sit totemically above industrial plastic buckets. These Capsules are containers of an ecology of sacred knowledge, like embodied histories of the land. For Stewart, the soil of the earth is the ultimate archive, holding the code of generations of Indigenous peoples, including her family and her community, the Syilx Nation, (Okanagan, British Columbia). About eight years ago, she was gifted 50 acres in Spaxomin (Douglas Lake) by her mother, thereby continuing a matriarchal line of women guardians of the land. This lakeside territory is in her charge, and as an artist she begins to incorporate the land in her journey of recognition.
“I thought about how, as an artist, I can be with the land and work with the land at the same time. I found a bucket, grabbed a shovel and went to my property and dug a hole, filling the bucket with the land. For several years I carried this bucket of earth with me. I would even walk down the street with it in a suitcase.”
Stewart began to devise ways of transporting it. If she could not be on the land, then the land could come with her, with all its history and the shamanistic presence of ancestors now in her care. In moving the land, she would initiate her own transformative archive, a mobile heritage of both familial and spiritual values, to be shared with other artists when she travelled.
“The first time I collected earth from my reservation in Spaxomin, I made it into a Capsule together with a ceramicist in Vancouver. The ceramic shell, made from local clay, literally encapsulates the land where I am from. It was to be exhibited in Seoul. So, I took it with me in my hand luggage on the flight from Vancouver. When I got to Seoul, I met another ceramicist, a Korean artist. He made the second one. This time, it encapsulates the land outside his studio. This was the beginning of my Capsule collection. A third was made in Toronto with another ceramicist. The dirt inside this one is from an Indigenous curator’s garden. Now, in Berlin, I’m looking for a ceramicist to make my fourth one. Like Nine ∞, Capule is also a work on perpetuity. It’s about encapsulating the land in each location, transporting it with me so it can lead to dialogue and collaboration. The bucket is like a pedestal from home. The Capsule is like the urn of a family member. And its impenetrable. There is only a small whole on the top to stop it from exploding in the kiln. Each Capsule stands upright through the weight of the soil. They are very heavy, precious objects.”
Later, in her studio in Vancouver, Stewart made over 1000 tiles from soil she had transported back to the city. These tiles, like archival imprints, were fragile and light. Their morphology and colour depended on where she had dug up the earth and how it had been affected by the elements. In the process of firing, several tiles broke. Stewart began to see how these shards of baked land could work as a water-soluble paint once pulverised. The tiles were also a means of legally transporting earth and by extension human remains on airplanes and across continents.
Meanwhile in Germany, in a small town near Dresden called Radebeul, an annual festival regularly draws together over 800 German enthusiasts who dress up as ‘Indianer’. Bands of grown-up men, smeared with red face paint and wearing leather loincloths and feather headdresses perform group dances, howling and whooping in the lush green fields. Stewart is curious. Their grotesque manifestations become the subject of a long-term inquiry, starting in 2006 when she first travels to the Karl-May-Haus in Hohenstein-Ernstthal and the Karl May Museum in Radebeul. The museum, established in 1988, has counted 8 million visitors to date. As the website explains, the museum’s founding community of “dreamers and Christians” (website description) is looking for “Blood Brothers” to donate funds to its expansion.
In the following conversation, Stewart talks about her encounter with the German Indianer.
CD: How did you meet them?
KB: I’d heard about the ‘Indianer’, a culture club of people in Germany who dress up as Native Americans, but I had no idea how to reach them. My initial plan was to research the fictional characters such as Winnetou and Old Shatterhand created by Karl May, and to visit the museum and home in Saxony. When I got there, I was too late for the Karl May Festival but I decided to stay on anyway. I wanted to see who I might encounter. On the first day, I went to the Karl-May-Haus and met Heike. She became my friend and my connection to the culture club (she wears the pink dress in the video). Heike has been working at the Karl-May-Haus for over 30 years, running the gift shop and giving tours. She has been an Indianer most of her life. When she works at the museum, she doesn’t dress up. She has a huge array of objects that she’s made herself and which are German imitations of the originals.
CD: How did you negotiate her vision of you?
KB: Out of all the Indianers I have met, Heike is quite aware of history and what is happening now across America. She understands that it is problematic for members of the club to dress up and imitate Native people. But she is truly inspired by Karl May and feels that what they do is a way of honouring a culture. We really tried to communicate, but she doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak German! Our conversation was choppy but we got along. She said, “Oh, what are you doing tonight?” I replied, “Ah, I’m just going to go to my hotel room.” She said, “I’m part of a club and I want to bring you along.” I was the first Native person to visit this club. They call themselves the Band of Broken Arrows. I returned to the same area the following year and hung out with Heike. That time I stayed at her house for several days and went to a pow-wow and the Karl May festival.
CD: Did you feel uncomfortable or compromised, looking into their world?
KB: I thought of it as an inverted anthropology.
CD: There are very few accounts in 20th century anthropology that evoke the subjective experience of fieldwork and the interpersonal ambivalence it produces. I try to imagine how you felt. Were you hurt? Did you feel anger? Repulsion?
KB: Yes, of course. I went on an emotional roller-coaster ride. I felt envious of how much they could embrace Indigenous culture, knowing all about these different tribes and much more history than I. It was impressive. But the majority were also naive. I know that Heike has seen my artworks online. She’s aware of what I do in terms of my practice but I’m not sure she fully understands the criticality. I have not spoken to her in a while. Since then, I’ve installed the work onto the floor of the gallery, so that we walk over images of them. I see their debasement to the floor as a critical outcome of my experience there.
CD: Your work highlights the grotesque and racist nature of this kind of imitation and cultural misrepresentation. You are aware of this, but they are not. Were any of them apologetic at any point?
KB: At first all the men surrounded me and asked, “what does she do?” Then later, they were ashamed. You could see it on their faces. As I walked around, most of them wouldn’t look me directly in the eyes or say hello.
CD: Because you’d caught them out, reversed the roles.
KB: I was just there with my cameras and my phone. I didn’t want to teach them anything, or dance for them, or with them. I refused to wear the dress that was gifted to me. I could never do that. It would have been for their pleasure, for them to see me as how they imagine a Native person to be. I didn’t want to play into that, to stand there and perform or pretend.
My work deals with the complexities of remediation: filming the phantasmagorical world of German Indianer, while safeguarding the archive of my community in the Capsules, which contain my land and the earth of the places I move to. Gestures of retrieval are taking place here, as well as questions of land ownership and transmission. The work is fragile. What are the ethics of this process? Is it effective? How does one talk about indigenous sovereignty without becoming emotional?
CD: It certainly generates complex feelings and a very strange psychology. This delirium is the unfathomable temporality of the decolonial process that can know no end.
Krista Belle Stewart is an artist and member of the Syilx Nation currently based in Berlin. Her work has been exhibited as part of MoMA’s Doc Fortnight (2021), MOCA, Toronto (2021); Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm (2020); CTM Festival, Berlin (2020); Hessel Museum, CCS Bard, Annandale-On-Hudson (2019); Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin (2019); Nanaimo Art Gallery, Nanaimo (2019); Artspace, Peterborough (2019); SFU Teck Gallery, Vancouver (2019); Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Montreal (2018); Musee d’Art Contemporain, Montreal (2018); Independent Studio and Curatorial Program, New York (2017); Plug In ICA, Winnipeg (2017); and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2017).